Category Archives: Publications

The Myth of Risk Theatre (A Myth of Tragedy)

Many thanks to PL for inviting me to take the Risk Theatre tour to the University of Massachusetts, Boston! And thank you to all the students who came out on a sweltering summer day at the end of term to see the presentation! The feedback was great and I could see at the end of the presentation that some gears were turning. And why is it that I can only go to Boston during weather extremes? Last time I was here was during the “bomb cyclone” in January. And it must have hit 30 C today, and it’s only the beginning of May! Well, assiduous readers, here’s the presentation for your reading pleasure:

Presentation Delivered to Peter Lech’s Greek and Roman Tragedy Class

Classics 375, McCormack Room 417

University of Massachusetts, Boston

May 2, 2018

 

The Myth of Risk Theatre

 

How do myths function? One of their functions is to translate nature and culture into human terms. By telling a story, they instill human significance onto natural and cultural phenomena. How did the custom of young women dedicating a lock of hair prior to marriage arise? Why is there a temple of Aphrodite at Troezen? The Hippolytus myth answers these questions by incorporating nature and culture into a story filled with human significance. According to the myth, Phaedra built the temple after Aphrodite caused her to fall in love with Hippolytus. As for the custom, it was initiated by Artemis as a consolation to the dying Hippolytus: he would die, but his dedication to her would be remembered forever. Here’s another one: why does that star seem to blink every six days? Science would tell you it’s a variable star called Algol. But what myth would tell you is that that star is part of Medusa’s head in the constellation Perseus—you have to imagine that he’s holding up her severed head—and, what is more, that star denotes her eye: it blinks because by blinking, it signifies her power to turn to stone. So, one function of myth is to inscribe meaning onto patterns found in nature and culture, patterns which otherwise lack meaning. Myth helps us to understand the world in human terms.

What I’m going to give you today is a myth of tragedy called ‘risk theatre’. Just as the myth of Medusa or the myth of Hippolytus humanize the world around us, my ‘myth’ of risk theatre provides a framework of tragedy. I call it a myth because it’s not right or wrong, but a story of how tragedy works. In particular, risk theatre addresses a peculiar question: how can tragedy create suspense if it dramatizes popular, well-known myths? The stories of the Labdacid House (that’s Oedipus’ family) or the House of Atreus (that’s Orestes’ family) are so well-known that everyone knows how the story ends. Since the outcomes are foreknown, it’s hard for the stories to generate suspense. Take a look at Homer’s handling of the Oedipus myth. In Book 11 of the Odyssey, commonly referred to as the nekuia(after the ancient rite used to summon ghosts),Odysseus tells the story of his journey to the underworld where he sees the shade of Jocaste, Oedipus’ wife. He speaks a matter-of-factly about Oedipus’ crimes and how Jocaste committed suicide. There’s no suspense in Homer’s rendition of the myth. It’s bare bones. And it can be bare bones because everyone knows the tale. For Sophocles to keep audiences sitting on the edge of their seats, he has to get around the spoiler alert. How does he do this?

Here’s the solution risk theatre prosposes: the dramatic kernel of tragedy is a gambling act in which the protagonist wagers all-in. Because each dramatic act is a gambling act, unexpected things can happen. Bets can go wrong. And the bigger the bet, the more it can go sideways. The dramatist’s role is to suppress the odds of the foreknown outcome to make it seem like what must happen is not going to happen. Then, when it happens, it’s exciting.

In other words, the hero makes a big bet. Things seem to go the hero’s way. Because of the hero’s intelligence, skill, or strength, the hero appears to avert the outcome everyone knows is coming. But then an unexpected low-probability, high-consequence event happens which brings about the foreknown outcome. Tragedy dramatizes a bet which has gone horribly sideways. That’s why I call tragedy risk theatre.

That tragedy is a gambling act and that dramatists trigger the foreknown outcome by a low-probability, high-consequence event are the two postulates of risk theatre. Let’s look at both these postulates, beginning with how tragedians deliberately suppress the likelihood of what must happen to the point where, when it happens, it seemsto have happened against all odds.

By a low-probability event, I mean an event that is unlikely, an event that is 1000:1 against, an event such as Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill. In Shakespeare’s play the witches tell Macbeth that nothing can harm him until Birnam Wood removes to Dunsinane Hill. It’s highly unlikely for the trees to take up their roots and hike up the hill. But when the troops camouflage themselves under Birnam Wood, the low-probability, high-consequence event unfolds. Macbeth is caught flat-footed. All is lost. The play generates suspense by making it seem like the foreknown event (Birnam Wood’s going to come) is unlikely. Let’s take a look at some of the tragedies you’ve studied to see how ancient tragedians entertain audiences by suppressing the likelihood of the outcome everyone knows is coming.

Euripides’ play, the Bacchae, pits man against god. Although you know from the myth that Pentheus dies, Euripides’ goal as a dramatist is to suppress the foreknown conclusion so that when it takes place, it’s exciting. How does he do this? Look at how he portrays the rivalry between Dionysus and Pentheus. Dionysus is portrayed as a ninety-eight pound weakling who waltzes into Thebes with a retinue of eastern women. He’s cast as a drunk foreign dandy with long hair and scented locks who spends his days and nights cavorting around town. Pentheus, on the other hand, is cast as a capable warrior-king. He’s at the prime of manhood, fights before the home crowd, and has at his beck and call slaves, guards, archers, and soldiers. Pentheus has every expectation of prevailing. With all his resources, he’s going to throw this hobo out of town. But when, against all odds, the effeminate stranger turns out to be god, the fated outcome takes place and Pentheus is torn limb by limb. The closing lines—the same ones Euripides uses in many other plays—make it absolutely clear that he too conceived of tragedy as a theatre where unexpected low-probability events happen. Closing line are critical and ought to be read with care. That Euripides writes these lines confirms the risk theatre model of tragedy. Here are the lines as spoken by the chorus leader:

What heaven sends has many shapes, and many things the gods accomplish against our expectation. What men look for is not brought to pass, but a god finds a way to achieve the unexpected. (1388-1392)

Now, let’s look at the next play: Aeschylus’ Oresteia. This trilogy culminates in a showdown between Orestes and the Furies. The foreknown outcome is that the spirits of vengeance, the Furies, are transformed into the ‘Kindly Ones’ or the Eumenides, benevolent spirits who watch over Athens. Aeschylus’ goal as a tragedian is to suppress the foreknown conclusion so that when it takes place, it’s unexpected. How does he do this? He does so by emphasizing the extraordinary length of time the Furies have been engaged as spirits of vengeance. The Furies are the daughters of Night (Eum. 321). And Night is the offspring of Chaos, the eldest of all deities. That means the Furies have been persecuting blood crimes from the beginning of time, in fact, from way back when Kronos first castrated his father Ouranos. When the Furies come to the court of the Areopagus, they have every intention of winning. Who would have guessed that Orestes’ act of violence, from all the acts of violence from the beginning of time would result in the Furies being transformed into the Eumenides? The way Aeschylus frames it, it’s unlikely, and because it’s unlikely, when it takes place, it’s shocking.

Think of these events as ‘black swan’ events. This is the term popularized by Taleb, a mathematician and Wall Street trader in his books Fooled by Randomnessand The Black Swan. The term ‘black swan’ goes back to the Roman poet Juvenal, who used it as a byword for something that doesn’t exist. But then in 1697, to the shock of the world, they sighted a black swan in Australia. Taleb uses the black swan as a visual analogy of low-probability, high-consequence events. What I’m arguing today is that tragedy is full of black swan events: the bum who happens to be god, the forest that up and attacks the ramparts, or the day the Furies became the Eumenides.

Now, let’s look at a third play, Sophocles’Oedipus rex. We touched earlier on Homer’s bare bones narration of the Oedipus myth. Not very exciting. How does Sophocles add fire to the dramatization?—easy, he transforms the outcome into a black swan event. Everyone watching knows that Oedipus’ patricide and the incestuous relationship is going to be revealed. Sophocles, however, structures the play so that it looks like that no one will ever figure it out. How does Sophocles achieve this? Let’s take a look. The one eyewitness’ account of Laius’ murder is so garbled that they don’t bother to fetch him. At least not right away. So, we’re not going to hear from him. Tiresias, who knows since he’s the prophet, obstructs the investigation. So, we’re not going to hear from him either. Jocaste, who has been warned by the oracle she would give birth to a patricide, tells Oedipus point blank that the oracle must be wrong, since she exposed the child. She doesn’t know that the child survived. So, we’re not going to hear from her. In fact, the evidence against the truth coming out is so overwhelming that the chorus stops dancing in the second stasimon and asks: “Why should I dance?” (896). The gravity of their jarring pronouncement should not be underestimated. Their question would have shocked audiences who knew that the chorus’ role in tragedy isto dance. Tragedy is part of the ancient liturgy and the chorus dances to honour the gods. But if the gods are a fraud—and it’s beginning to look that way because the oracle is just looking plain wrong—why should they honour the gods?

Look: the eyewitness isn’t going to tell them because they didn’t summon him. Not yet. Tiresias isn’t going to tell him. And Jocaste tells him that the oracle dead wrong. If the Delphic oracle is mistaken and the gods can’t be trusted, what’s the point of dancing? Even after the chorus stops dancing, things appear to get even worse: the Corinthian messenger comes out of nowhere to tell Oedipus that he’s inherited the Corinthian throne because his dad Polybus died. This really throws Oedipus into shock: years ago, when the oracle prophesied that he would be a patricide, he had run away from home. And now, he finds out that dad died of natural causes. Things are looking worse and worse for the oracle. It looks like the truth will never come out. But when Oedipus tells the messenger why he left Corinth, the truth finally tumbles out. “Don’t worry about your dad” says the messenger, “he’s not really your dad.” “How do you know this?” “Well I saved you when you were a babe and your real parents had exposed you. You’re actually from Thebes.” “Who are my real parents?” “Well you have to ask the shepherd. He gave me to you.” “Oh, you mean the shepherd that I just summoned?—the one who is the sole surviving witness of Laius’ murder at the crossroads.” “Yes, that’s the one.” See where this is going? What are the odds of a messenger, and not any messenger, but this messenger coming to Thebes at this exact moment? And what are the odds that the shepherd who had saved Oedipus when he was a babe just happens to be the sole surviving witness of Laius’ murder? I’ll tell you: the odds are as likely as Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill or the madman actually being a god or the Furies being transformed into the Eumenides: it’s a billion to one against. And when it’s a billion to one against, when it happens, it’s dramatic.

Okay, by definition, low-probability events don’t happen very often. But, as we’ve seen, in tragedy, they happen every time. How does the dramatist set up the low-probability event so that it always happens? Do any of you gamble? Then you know, the more you wager, the more things can go wrong, up to the point when you bet everything, anything can go wrong. Lay down the bankroll, leverage yourself up 100:1, go in with all your friends’ and family’s money: if the odds are anything less than perfect, the consequences are huge. Even if the odds are 99.99 percent in your favour, when you go all-in, that 0.01 percent can ruin you. Risk theatre is where that 0.01 percent happens.

The secret of how the dramatist tees up the low-probability, high-consequence risk event is that in tragedy, each dramatic act is also a gambling act. And not any gambling act, but an all-in leveraged up to the gills gambling act. For a chance to be king, Macbeth lays down the milk of human kindness. Like the game of gambling, in tragedy you have to ante up for a chance to play. But unlike the game of gambling, where you lay down cash instruments, in tragedy, you lay down human instruments. For world domination, Faust lays down his soul. For revenge, revengers lay down their humanity. For the American dream, Loman (in Death of a Salesman) lays down his dignity. Pentheus bets everything that the stranger is some bum and not god personified. He lays on the line his authority as king: no bum is going to start seditious rites while he sits on the throne. Oedipus bets that he can outwit the oracle: “You prophecy I’ll kill dad?—I’ll show you! I’m Oedipus, the master riddler. I can solve anything, and I’ll solve you!” And the Furies stake their prerogative as the punishers of blood guilt on the precedence of tradition.

When you lay so much on the line, you expose yourself to low-probability, high-consequence events because you’ve taken up too much risk. For Macbeth, Birnam Wood came. For Loman, he finds out that he’s worth more dead than alive. For Pentheus, the bum happens to be god. And for the Furies, this time was different. Who would have thought?

At the beginning I promised you a myth of tragedy. What I’ve given you is risk theatre, and its framework helps you find your way around tragedy in the same way as constellations light up a road map of the night sky. And just like constellations, risk theatre works brilliantly most of the time. The constellation Orion works great: there’s the shoulders, the belt. But then there’s a constellation like Gemini where you have to squint pretty hard to see Castor and Pollux. And just as you wouldn’t throw out the whole system of constellations because one or two don’t work, you wouldn’t throw out risk theatre for the one or two tragedies that defy it. Ultimately, risk theatre adds to our understanding because it answers the question of how tragedy can be exciting even though spoilers have marred the ending.

Think of tragedy as a theatre of risk where heroes go big or go home. Because heroes make risk run riot with their wagers, think of each dramatic act as a gambling act. When characters stake their souls, allegiances, and reputations, and leverage all their military, social, and political capital to achieve their aims, things get interesting real fast because we see by how they set up their wagers how much they value life. A gallon of milk is worth $4.99, but how much is the milk of human kindness worth?—to Macbeth, it’s worth a Scottish crown, because that’s what he antes up: the milk of human kindness for the crown. Tragedy is an arbiter of life’s value. Think of the tragic emotions not as pity and fear, but rather anticipation and apprehension: anticipation for what the hero wagers and apprehension for the black swan event that’s going to dash the hero, the hero’s friends and family, and the community at large.

Think of the downfall of the hero as something brought about by pure chance rather than a tragic flaw or error. The aged Oedipus, in Sophocles’ final play Oedipus at Colonus, says this exactly: “Okay, when it happened, I thought I had done something wrong, but now, looking back, how else shouldI have acted? Where exactly was my error?—I was dealt a certain hand and I played the game flawlessly.” To blame an Oedipus or a Macbeth or a Pentheus for a tragic flaw is as inane as to blame, say, the Cincinnati Kid for going all-in on the final poker hand against Lancey in Richard Jessup’s novel. He has to play that hand, and it’s only when Lancey makes the most unexpected move that he loses. He could not have known that Lancey would “make the wrong move at the right time.” In the same way, what was Pentheus supposed to do when the seditious foreign stranger waltzes into town: kneel down and worship him? Folks, it’s chance. Not error. Stop looking for error and look instead at the role chance plays. The point of risk theatre is that it enlightens us that chance plays a much larger role in our lives than what we’re comfortable admitting. In tragedy, even fate must work through the mechanisms of chance.

This idea of risk theatre I’ve been developing for over ten years, and I’m very happy to let you know it’s more than theory. Langham Court Theatre, one of the most storied and successful community theatres in Canada, has just now signed on to inaugurate a 2019 Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition. We’re challenging dramatists worldwide to write bold and exciting risk theatre tragedies. We’re giving away over $10,000 in prize money. And we’re going to produce the winning play. Not only this year. Every year. We’re going to reinvent tragedy. The site is at risktheatre.com. Theatre spelled with a –re ending. The site’s not quite live. But I can give you the password: 1974. Take a look. See if you can figure out that poker hand on the illustration.

Here’s a parting thought I’d like to leave you with. I’ve known Peter for a long time. We went to Brown together in the 2000s. He was studying speech patterns in Roman comedy and I was grappling with how tragedy functions. Thank you, Peter for the opportunity to speak today. After Brown, I came back to Canada to take up my old job. You know, by trade, I’m not an academic and not a thespian. I’m a plumber. But I never lost sight of my goal. And despite the long odds, it looks like the goal’s getting closer. And you know the odds are long when the border guard looks at you real funny when you say that you’re speaking on theatre and your occupation is plumbing. So I encourage you all, no matter what your goals are, to chase them down. If I can do it, you can too. Because, you know, if you stay hungry and keep going, despite the long odds, sometimes the low-probability, high-consequence event will work out in your favour. Thank you.

18.05.umass

Low-Probability, High-Consequence Events in Greek Tragedy: Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes

Thanks to Professor LB and the Department of Greek and Roman Studies for setting up this seminar. And thanks to all the students and faculty who came out on a cold and snowy Friday afternoon. Great turnout (we packed the conference room) and very receptive audience for this homecoming lecture. Judging from the discussion period that followed the presentation, there’s a sharp band of students at UVic! My old roommate TS from the happy days of UVic undergrad (who’s know Professor TS of English Literature) received a research grant to fly out to hear the talk, so that was extra fun! The core of this presentation was delivered at the APA earlier this year. This version has been revised to take into account the feedback from APA which was: hammer home the point that the gate assignations are random. The preconceived (and likely mistaken) notion that Eteocles decides the assignations remains very strong with readers of the play. If the assignations are random (as I argue), the play is actually quite fun, dramatic, and full of suspense. If the assignations are decided and preordained (as others argue), the play is quite static. Which would you rather have? BTW the image on the poster is from the Exekias Vase and it depicts Achilles and Ajax playing dice. Probably a high-stakes game as they have their spears handy just in case!

Exekias Vase

DEPARTMENT OF GREEK AND ROMAN STUDIES SEMINAR

FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 23 2:30 PM CLEARIHUE B415

 

Low-Probability, High-Consequence Events in Greek Tragedy: Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes

 

I present to you a question: does it seem that tragedy in general—not just Greek tragedy—goes out of its way to dramatize low-probability, high-consequence outcomes? Low-probability refers to events are that are unlikely, events that are 1000:1 against, events such as Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill. In Shakespeare’s play, the witches tell Macbeth that nothing can harm him until Birnam Wood removes to Dunsinane Hill. It’s highly unlikely that the trees will take up their roots and hike up the hill. But when the troops camouflage themselves under Birnam Wood, the high-consequence event unfolds. Macbeth is caught flat-footed. All is lost.

 

We see something similar in Sophocles’ Oedipus rex. The messenger comes out of left field to tell Oedipus that he’s inherited the Corinthian throne, and, oh, by the way, your parents aren’t who you think they are. How do I know that?—well, I saved you when you were a babe and your real parents had exposed you. Who are my real parents?—well, you have to ask the shepherd. What are the odds of a messenger, and not any messenger, but this messenger coming to Thebes at this exact moment? It’s as likely as Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill. But it happens, and the outcome has high consequences, as Oedipus goes from being a king to an outcast.

 

This presentation is on how tragedy dramatizes low-probability, high-consequence events. But there’s one problem: how do we know that an event in tragedy is unlikely? Something has to happen, and anything that happens is, in a way, unique. How do we quantify the odds of what takes place against what did not take place?

 

Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes is the one unique play where it’s possible to quantify the odds of what didn’t happen. In Seven, seven attacking captains lay siege to seven-gated Thebes. One brother, Polyneices, marshals the attack. Inside Thebes, the other brother, Eteocles, coordinates the defence. The worst-case scenario occurs if the brothers meet at the seventh gate. They would shed kindred blood and miasma would result. If they go to different gates, the worst-case scenario is averted. Or, if they find themselves at a gate prior to the seventh gate, Eteocles could substitute another captain in his place. But the worst-case scenario occurs if they’re both at the final gate, as substitutions are no longer possible.

 

With seven gates, seven attackers, and seven defenders, what are the odds of the worst-case scenario? Let’s look at this this way. What are the odds of rolling a six on a six-sided die? There’re six equally probable outcomes, so the answer is 1:6. Now what are the odds of rolling two sixes? The outcome of two independent rolls is the product of their individual probabilities. 1:6*1:6=1:36. Now, if there are seven gates, and the assignations are random, there’s a 1:7 chance that Eteocles goes to the seventh gate. The odds of Polyneices going there are the same, 1:7. So we multiply the odds together and find that, the odds of the worst-case scenario is 1:49. Now, what are the odds of the worst-case scenario not happening? The answer is 48 out of 49 times. See how Aeschylus doesn’t dramatize the likely scenario, but rather the worst-case scenario which is 48:1 against. Thanks to Seven, we can quantify how tragedy goes out of its way to deliberately dramatize low-probability, high-consequence events.

 

But—how do we know that the process of assigning gates to the attackers is random? Easy. The scout tells us:

 

As I was leaving

they were casting lots (klhroumevnou~), each to divine by fortune

against which of our gates he would lead his battalions (77-9, trans. Hecht & Bacon)

 

Since the attackers draw lots, it stands that Polyneices’ chance of going to the seventh gate is 1:7. How do we know that the process of assigning gates to the defenders is random? That’s harder. It’s not explicit. Eteocles tells us at the conclusion of the first episode that:

 

I will go and assign six men, myself the seventh,

all fully armed oarsmen,

against the champions at the seven exit-points of the city. (357-60)

 

Now, when he says that he “will assign six men, myself the seventh” he doesn’t necessarily mean he’s stationing himself at the seventh gate. So why say this odd phrase?—“assign six men, myself the seventh.” I like Roisman’s explanation: “it is an image of bad luck, since the number 6 + 1 [in dice games] was considered an unlucky throw.”[1] I want to seize and expand this point. There’s something ludic about this play; it exudes a sort of gambling hall or lottery atmosphere. We’ve already talked about how the attackers draw lots and the unlucky 6 + 1 gambling reference. Let’s add to this. For instance, Eteocles remarks as he dispatches Melanippus to face Tydeus that: “The chances of battle are as dice (kuvboi~) in the hands of Ares (511).” What other gaming references are there? Well, when Eteocles interprets the matchup between Hippomedon and Hyperbius, he says: “Hermes, by divine reason, has matched this pair (624).” Hermes, as Hecht and Bacon note, is invoked in his capacity as the god of luck and fortunate coincidence. Finally, the scout tells us after the brothers die that “they have shared out by lot (dievlacon) their full inheritance (1039).” The lottery image, along with the ship of state image, are the two dominant metaphors of this play. Because of the lottery imagery, I’m convinced that a random process must be involved in how Eteocles assigns the defenders. After all, why would he say that “Hermes, by divine reason, has matched this pair” unless they were brought together under Hermes’ tutelage as the god of lots? And why would the scout say that the brothers “have shared out by lot their full inheritance” unless a lottery process was involved in the assignations?

 

I want to share with you that Seven was the first Greek tragedy I read. When I first read it, I thought for sure that Eteocles decides the assignations on the spot, during the shield scene itself. The scout would report and he would say: “Oh, I just have the right guy to neutralize him.” In hindsight, that’s a very modern reading as that’s how a general would decide today. But how would this fit in with the lottery images? It doesn’t. Later I read Zeitlin’s Under the Sign of the Shield where she points out that Eteocles clearly says he’s going to decide the assignations before he meets the scout.[2] But then I thought: “Eteocles decides?—then what’s the point of all the lottery and gambling images?” Then I heard Weckler and Wilamowitz’ argument that some assignations are done before, and some during. While this solves the problem of the tenses, as during the shield scene sometimes Eteocles says “I shall station,” and at other times “He has been chosen,” it seems unnecessarily complicated. Because of the lottery references, I was ready to say that Eteocles decides by lot before he meets the scout. But when I recently read Herrmann’s conjecture, I was immediately convinced: he conjectures that Eteocles decides by lot during the shield scene itself.[3] Herrmann’s conjecture is brilliant. When Eteocles says that he’s going to assign the men before the scout comes, he’s putting their names in the helmet. As for the tenses, as he picks up the lot he can be saying “I will appoint” or “He has been already appointed.” Furthermore, Herrmann’s conjecture gives Eteocles something dramatic to do during the shield scene and, what is more, it means that, the defender assignations, like the attacker assignations, are random. Because all the assignations are random, all the possible matchups at each of the gates exist only as a probability until the moment when the lots are drawn. Because all the outcomes exist as probabilities, we can quantify the exact odds of what takes place against what did take place to verify how tragedy engages audiences with low-probability, high-consequence scenarios.

 

Could Aeschylus and his audience have worked out that the worst-case scenario is averted 48 out of 49 times? No. Sambursky, a historian of science, finds that the lack of both algebraic notation and systematic experimentation held the Greeks back from discovering the laws of probability.[4] The laws of probability would not develop until Cardano starts counting up the number of throws possible with dice two millennia later. But we know that the Greeks were able to understand the concept, if not the math of combinatorial analyses. Xenocrates, for example, mistakenly calculates that, by mixing together the letters of the alphabet, 1,002,000 unique syllables are possible.[5] Despite not being able to compute the exact odds, Aeschylus and his audience would have recognized that the odds of the brothers meeting at the highest gate was an exceedingly low-probability affair.

 

Besides the objective remoteness of the worst-case scenario, what subjective cues give Eteocles hope things will go his way? First, there’s the enemy’s disarray. Their morale is so low that they’re already dedicating memorial tokens to send back home. One of their captains says outright that he’s going to die. They also attack before their seer gives the signal. And there’s infighting between their captains. Contrast this with the improving morale of the chorus of Theban women, who function as a barometer of morale within the city: they start off in panic, but by the first stasimon, Eteocles wins them over. Many indications give Eteocles subjective hope.

 

The surest indication that things will go his way comes in the shield scene. In the shield scene, the scout describes, gate by gate, the attacking captain’s appearance, demeanor, and shield device. Eteocles, in turn, draws the lot to determine the defender and interprets the tale of the tape. Since chance is a reflection of god’s will, you can tell from the random matchups which side heaven favours. In the game of knucklebones, for example, rolling the Aphrodite throw (1, 3, 4, and 6) was considered a propitious sign from the goddess. So, to make up an example, if the bad guy carries a brutal monster on his shield, and your guy happens to be carrying a shield depicting a peasant farmer, that’s heaven telling you: “Your guy’s going to die.” So, how do the matchups work out? Well, in aggregate, the matchups overwhelmingly favour Eteocles. For example, the attacker at the fourth gate sports a Typhon device and he happens to be matched up against the defender bearing the Zeus shield: in myth Zeus had tamed Typhon. Or, as it happens, the attacker at the first gate who shouts out impieties is matched up with a defender who just happens to be “a noble man who honours the throne of Reverence (503).” So, gate by gate, as Eteocles sees the matchups unfolding, he grows more confident.

 

Objectively, the worst-case case scenario is buried deep in the odds. Subjectively, everything’s going his way. He’s unified the city. The matchups look better and better. But what’s happening? The odds of the worst-case scenario go up gate by gate each time the brothers’ lots don’t come up. At the first gate, the worst-case odds are 1:49. At the second gate, they go up to 1:36. By the sixth gate, they’ve escalated to 1:4. See what’s happening? Paradoxically, as he becomes more confident, he’s actually in greater danger, till the point when he’s most confident, at that point he’s in the greatest danger. Even as the situation becomes subjectively better, objectively things are becoming much worse. At the sixth gate, with his cheeks flush with the glow of wine and his hair all but adorned in ivy, as he dispatches Lasthenes to confront Amphiaraus, he seals his own doom in a stunning twist of fate. When the scout announces Polyneices stands at the seventh gate, the low-probability, high-consequence event comes to pass. The event was objectively low-probability because the odds that it happens is 48:1 against. The event was subjectively low-probability because everything was going his way. Tragedy is an engine that makes even foredoomed outcomes exciting by discounting the odds of the inevitable taking place.

 

I think these low-probability, high-consequence events are commonplace throughout tragedy. Take Sophocles’ Oedipus rex. Like Eteocles, Oedipus has played his hand well. Everything’s going his way. “Don’t worry,” says the Corinthian messenger, “you’re really not from Corinth. You’re going to be king of two cities.” At the point of maximum confidence, the low-probability, high-consequence event happens and Oedipus loses all. Or take Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Like Eteocles, Macbeth has played his hand well. “Nothing can harm you,” say the witches. At the point of maximum confidence, the low-probability, high-consequence event unfolds: Birnam Wood. Can you see a general trend?—at the point of maximum confidence, an unexpected, low-probability event unfolds with high consequences.

 

This way of looking at tragedy I call risk theatre. To me, tragedy’s function is to warn us that at our point of maximum confidence, we are, paradoxically, in the gravest danger. In this way, tragedy speaks to our confident age, an age of both great risk and great reward. While I was writing this, an article appeared in Wired magazine on November 16 on gene editing.[6] In the US, the entomologist Akbari is working on a gene drive, a way to supercharge evolution by forcing a genetic modification to spread through an entire population. With the gene drive, he can take flight away from mosquitoes and vanquish malaria—promising, of course, minimal disruption to ecosystems. And on November 17, USA Today reported that in Italy, Doctor Canavero was getting ready to do the world’s first head transplant on a human being.[7] What could go wrong?—they had already done the procedure on a dog. Akbari and Canavero are confident, and have the best-laid plans. But so did Oedipus, Eteocles, and Macbeth. In today’s technological age of manufactured risk, tragedy ought to and should be seen as a theatre of risk, as we moderns have a moral obligation to come to terms with the low-probability, high-consequence ramifications of our actions. And what better place to explore these than through drama? We emerge from risk theatre with eyes wide open. And I think, if you look at tragedy as a theatre of risk, it will guide you well because you’ll be better apprised that the things that hurt you come where you least expect. I’ll finish by saying that I’ve written a book on risk theatre and that I’m in high-level talks with theatres to produce new tragedies based on this exciting concept. Thank you for listening, and I welcome your feedback on risk theatre, the theatre that guarantees low-probability outcomes, every time.

 

Edwin Wong

edwinclwong@gmail.com

[1] Roisman, Hanna M. “The Messenger and Eteocles in the Seven against Thebes,” in L’antiquité classique, vol. 59, 1990, 22.

[2] Zeitlin, Froma I., Under the Sign of the Shield, 45.

[3] Herrmann, Fritz-Gregor, “Eteocles’ Decision in Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes, in Tragedy and Archaic Greek Thought, ed. Douglas Cairns, Swansea: Classical Press of Wales, 2013, 58ff.

[4] Sambursky, “On the Possible and the Probable in Ancient Greece,” Osiris 12 (1956) 35-48.

[5] Plutarch, Quaestiones convivales 733a.

[6] Molteni, Megan, “This Gene-Editing Tech Might be too Dangerous to Unleash,” Wired, November 16, 2017.

[7] Hjelmgaard, Kim, “Italian Doctor Says World’s First Human Head Transplant ‘Imminent’,” USA Today, November 17, 2017.

Low-Probability, High-Consequence Events in Greek Tragedy: A Look at Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes

2018 Society for Classical Studies Annual Meeting (Boston)

Session 9: Agency in Drama (Presided by Helene Foley)

 

Low-Probability, High-Consequence Events in Greek Tragedy: A Look at Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes

 

I present to you a question: does it seem that tragedy in general—not just Greek tragedy—goes out of its way to dramatize low-probability, high-consequence outcomes? Low-probability refers to events are that are unlikely, events that are 1000:1 against, events such as Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill. In Shakespeare’s play, the witches tell Macbeth that nothing can harm him until Birnam Wood removes to Dunsinane Hill. It’s highly unlikely that the trees will take up their roots and hike up the hill. But when the troops camouflage themselves under Birnam Wood, the high-consequence event unfolds. Macbeth is caught flat-footed. All is lost.

 

We see something similar in Sophocles’ Oedipus rex. The messenger comes out of left field to tell Oedipus that he’s inherited the Corinthian throne, and, oh, by the way, your parents aren’t who you think they are. How do I know that?—well, I saved you when you were a babe and your real parents had exposed you. Who are my real parents?—well, you have to ask the shepherd. What are the odds of a messenger, and not any messenger, but this messenger coming to Thebes at this exact moment? It’s as likely as Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill. But it happens, and the outcome has high consequences, as Oedipus goes from being a king to an outcast.

 

This presentation is on how tragedy dramatizes the risk of low-probability, high-consequence events. But there’s one problem: how do we know that an event in tragedy is unlikely? I mean, something has to happen, and anything that happens is, in a way, unique. How do we quantify the odds of what takes place against what did not take place? We need a play where we can see this.

 

In Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes it’s possible to quantify the odds of what didn’t happen. In Seven, seven attacking captains lay siege to seven-gated Thebes. One brother, Polyneices, marshals the attack. Inside Thebes, the other brother, Eteocles, coordinates the defence. The worst-case scenario occurs if the brothers meet at the seventh gate. They would shed kindred blood and miasma would result. If they go to different gates, the worst-case scenario is averted. Or, if they find themselves at a gate prior to the seventh gate, Eteocles could substitute another captain in his place. But the worst-case scenario occurs if they’re both at the final gate, as substitutions are no longer possible.

 

With seven gates, seven attackers, and seven defenders, what are the odds of the worst-case scenario? Let’s look at this this way. What are the odds of rolling a six on a six-sided die? There’re six equally probable outcomes, so the answer is 1:6. Now what are the odds of rolling two sixes? The outcome of two independent rolls is the product of their individual probabilities. 1:6*1:6=1:36. Now, if there are seven gates, and the assignations are random, there’s a 1:7 chance that Eteocles goes to the seventh gate. The odds of Polyneices going there are the same, 1:7. So we multiply the odds together and find that, the odds of the worst-case scenario is 1:49. Now, what are the odds of the worst-case scenario not happening? The answer is 48 out of 49 times. See how Aeschylus doesn’t dramatize the likely scenario, but rather the worst-case scenario which is 48:1 against. Thanks to Seven, we can quantify how tragedy goes out of its way to deliberately dramatize low-probability, high-consequence events.

 

But—how do we know that the process of assigning gates to the attackers is random? Easy. The scout tells us:

 

As I was leaving

they were casting lots (klhroumevnou~), each to divine by fortune

against which of our gates he would lead his battalions (77-9, trans. Hecht & Bacon)

 

Since the attackers draw lots, it stands that Polyneices’ chance of going to the seventh gate is 1:7. How do we know that the process of assigning gates to the defenders is random? That’s harder. It’s not explicit. Eteocles tells us at the conclusion of the first episode that:

 

I will go and assign six men, myself the seventh,

all fully armed oarsmen,

against the champions at the seven exit-points of the city. (357-60)

 

Now, when he says that he “will assign six men, myself the seventh” he doesn’t necessarily mean he’s stationing himself at the seventh gate. So why say this odd phrase?—“assign six men, myself the seventh.” I like Roisman’s explanation: “it is an image of bad luck, since the number 6 + 1 [in dice games] was considered an unlucky throw.”[1] I want to seize and expand this point. There’s something ludic about this play; it exudes a sort of gambling hall or lottery atmosphere. We’ve already talked about how the attackers draw lots and the unlucky 6 + 1 gambling reference. Let’s add to this. For instance, Eteocles remarks as he dispatches Melanippus to face Tydeus that: “The chances of battle are as dice (kuvboi~) in the hands of Ares (511).” What other gaming references are there? Well, when Eteocles interprets the matchup between Hippomedon and Hyperbius, he says: “Hermes, by divine reason, has matched this pair (624).” Hermes, as Hecht and Bacon note, is invoked in his capacity as the god of luck and fortunate coincidence. Finally, the scout tells us after the brothers die that “they have shared out by lot (dievlacon) their full inheritance (1039).” The lottery image, along with the ship of state image, are the two dominant metaphors of this play. Because of all these lottery images, I’m convinced that a random process must be involved in how Eteocles assigns the defenders. After all, why would he say that “Hermes, by divine reason, has matched this pair” unless they were brought together under Hermes’ tutelage as the god of lots? And why would the scout say that the brothers “have shared out by lot their full inheritance” unless a lottery process was involved in the assignations?

 

I want to share with you that Seven was the first Greek tragedy I read. When I first read it, I thought for sure that Eteocles decides the assignations on the spot, during the shield scene itself. The scout would report and he would say: “Oh, I just have the right guy to neutralize him.” In hindsight, that’s a very modern reading as that’s probably how a general would decide today. But how would this fit in with the lottery images? It doesn’t. Later I read Zeitlin’s Under the Sign of the Shield where she points out that Eteocles clearly says he’s going to decide the assignations before he meets the scout.[2] But then I thought: “Eteocles decides?—then what’s the point of all the lottery and gambling images?” Then I heard Weckler and Wilamowitz’ argument that some assignations are done before, and some during. While this solves the problem of the tenses, as during the shield scene sometimes Eteocles says “I shall station,” and at other times “He has been chosen,” it seems unnecessarily complicated. Because of the lottery references, I was ready to say that Eteocles decides by lot before he meets the scout. But when I recently read Herrmann’s conjecture, I was immediately convinced: he conjectures that Eteocles decides by lot during the shield scene itself.[3] Herrmann’s conjecture is brilliant. When Eteocles says that he’s going to assign the men before the scout comes, he’s putting their names in the helmet. As for the tenses, as he picks up the lot he can be saying “I will appoint” or “He has been already appointed.” Furthermore, Herrmann’s conjecture gives Eteocles something dramatic to do during the shield scene and, what is more, it means that, the defender assignations, like the attacker assignations, are random.

 

Could Aeschylus and his audience have worked out that the worst-case scenario is averted 48 out of 49 times? No. Sambursky, a historian of science, finds that the lack of both algebraic notation and systematic experimentation held the Greeks back from discovering the laws of probability.[4] The laws of probability would not develop until Cardano starts counting up the number of throws possible with dice two millennia later. But we know that the Greeks were able to understand the concept, if not the math of combinatorial analyses. Xenocrates, for example, mistakenly calculates that, by mixing together the letters of the alphabet, 1,002,000 unique syllables are possible.[5] Despite not being able to compute the exact odds, Aeschylus and his audience would have recognized that the odds of the brothers meeting at the highest gate was an exceedingly low-probability affair.

 

Besides the objective remoteness of the worst-case scenario, what subjective cues give Eteocles hope things will go his way? First, there’s the enemy’s disarray. Their morale is so low that they’re already dedicating memorial tokens to send back home. One of their captains says outright that he’s going to die. They also attack before their seer gives the signal. And there’s infighting between their captains. Contrast this with the improving morale of the chorus of Theban women, who function as a barometer of morale within the city: they start off in panic, but by the first stasimon, Eteocles wins them over. Many indications give Eteocles subjective hope.

 

The surest indication that things will go his way comes in the shield scene. In the shield scene, the scout describes, gate by gate, the attacking captain’s appearance, demeanor, and shield device. Eteocles, in turn, draws the lot to determine the defender and interprets the tale of the tape. Since chance is a reflection of god’s will, you can tell from the random matchups which side heaven favours. In the game of knucklebones, for example, rolling the Aphrodite throw (1, 3, 4, and 6) was considered a propitious sign from the goddess. So, to make up an example, if the bad guy carries a brutal monster on his shield, and your guy happens to be carrying a shield depicting a peasant farmer, that’s heaven telling you: “Your guy’s going to die.” So, how do the matchups work out? Well, in aggregate, the matchups overwhelmingly favour Eteocles. For example, the attacker at the fourth gate sports a Typhon device and he happens to be matched up against the defender bearing the Zeus shield: in myth Zeus had tamed Typhon. Or, as it happens, the attacker at the first gate who shouts out impieties is matched up with a defender who just happens to be “a noble man who honours the throne of Reverence (503).” So, gate by gate, as Eteocles sees the matchups unfolding, he grows more confident.

 

Objectively, the worst-case case scenario is buried deep in the odds. Subjectively, everything’s going his way. He’s unified the city. The matchups look better and better. But what’s happening? The odds of the worst-case scenario go up gate by gate each time the brothers’ lots don’t come up. At the first gate, the worst-case odds are 1:49. At the second gate, they go up to 1:36. By the sixth gate, they’ve escalated to 1:4. See what’s happening? Paradoxically, as he becomes more confident, he’s actually in greater danger, till the point when he’s most confident, at that point he’s in the greatest danger. That’s the genius of Seven: even as the situation becomes subjectively better, objectively things are becoming much worse. At the sixth gate, with his cheeks flush with the glow of wine and his hair all but adorned in ivy, as he dispatches Lasthenes to confront Amphiaraus, he seals his own doom in a stunning twist of fate. When the scout announces Polyneices stands at the seventh gate, the low-probability, high-consequence event comes to pass. The event was objectively low-probability because the odds that it happens is 48:1 against. The event was subjectively low-probability because everything was going his way. By combining subjective and objective probabilities, Aeschylus spring loads the low-probability event so that when it takes place, we feel its impact.

 

I think these low-probability, high-consequence events are commonplace all over tragedy. Take Sophocles’ Oedipus rex. Like Eteocles, Oedipus has played his hand well. Everything’s going his way. “Don’t worry,” says the Corinthian messenger, “you’re really not from Corinth. You’re going to be king of two cities.” At the point of maximum confidence, the low-probability, high-consequence event happens and Oedipus loses all. Or take Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Like Eteocles, Macbeth has played his hand well. “Nothing can harm you,” say the witches. At the point of maximum confidence, the low-probability, high-consequence event unfolds: Birnam Wood. Can you see a general trend?—at the point of maximum confidence, an unexpected, low-probability event unfolds with high consequences.

 

This way of looking at tragedy I call risk theatre. Tragedy warns us, that at our point of maximum confidence, we are, paradoxically, in the gravest danger. I think that tragedy speaks to our confident age, an age of both great risk and great reward. While I was writing this, an article appeared in Wired magazine on November 16 on gene editing.[6] Here in the US the entomologist Akbari is working on a gene drive, a way to supercharge evolution by forcing a genetic modification to spread through an entire population. With the gene drive, he can take flight away from mosquitoes and vanquish malaria—promising, of course, minimal disruption to ecosystems. And on November 17, USA Today reported that in Italy, Doctor Canavero was getting ready to do the world’s first head transplant on a human being.[7] What could go wrong?—they had already done one on a dog. Akbari and Canavero are confident, and have the best-laid plans. But so did Oedipus, Eteocles, and Macbeth. I look at tragedy as a theatre of risk because such an interpretation speaks to our technological age of manufactured risk. In such an age, I believe that we have a moral obligation to come to terms with low-probability, high-consequence events. And what better place to explore these than through drama? We emerge from risk theatre with eyes wide open. And I think, if you look at tragedy as a theatre of risk, it will guide you well because you’ll be better apprised that the things that hurt you come where you least expect. I’ll finish by saying that I’ve written a book on risk theatre and that I’m in high-level talks with theatres in Victoria, Canada to produce new tragedies based on this exciting concept. The goal to start a new art movement in tragedy. Thank you for listening, and I welcome your feedback on risk theatre, the theatre that guarantees low-probability outcomes, every time.

 

Edwin Wong

2018-01-05

[1] Roisman, Hanna M. “The Messenger and Eteocles in the Seven against Thebes,” in L’antiquité classique, vol. 59, 1990, 22.

[2] Zeitlin, Froma I., Under the Sign of the Shield, 45.

[3] Herrmann, Fritz-Gregor, “Eteocles’ Decision in Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes, in Tragedy and Archaic Greek Thought, ed. Douglas Cairns, Swansea: Classical Press of Wales, 2013, 58ff.

[4] Sambursky, “On the Possible and the Probable in Ancient Greece,” Osiris 12 (1956) 35-48.

[5] Plutarch, Quaestiones convivales 733a.

[6] Molteni, Megan, “This Gene-Editing Tech Might be too Dangerous to Unleash,” Wired, November 16, 2017.

[7] Hjelmgaard, Kim, “Italian Doctor Says World’s First Human Head Transplant ‘Imminent’,” USA Today, November 17, 2017.

Society for Classical Studies 2018 Presentation

The Harmony of Fixed Fate and Free Will in the Iliad

How many assiduous readers have read Homer.s Iliad? If you have, you might remember Achilles and his peculiar fates: if he continues the fight at Troy, he will die an untimely death yet live on in song forevermore. But if he returns home, he will live to a ripe old age but his fame will be forgotten. He chooses to fight the good fight. But what sort of choice is this if it.s fated? And really, if he takes off, we wouldn.t have the story of the Iliad–surely that.s not allowed! That.s not the only peculiar instance of fate and free will in the Iliad. Readers with good memories will also recall Zeus’ predicament when Sarpedon.s fated moment to die arrives: does he save his son or can he circumvent fate? Like a wily politician, Zeus sidesteps the issue: he pulls out his golden scales. Sarpedon.s lot sinks. So he dies. But hey, it.s not Zeus’ fault–the scales did it! Zeus says that he could have averted his son.s death. But really, could he have?

These, and other scenes where fate and free will come to head lead to two questions. First: how fixed is fate? And second: how free is free will in the Iliad? I examine these questions in the piece The Harmony of Fixed Fate and Free Will in the Iliad, published by Antichthon in 2002. Ultimately, the conflict between fate and free will is likened to a chess endgame. The article is in PDF form so I.ve downloaded a plugin called ‘PDF Embedder’ so that it can be embedded into the post. Scroll down, it should be visible. Second option is to click on ‘iliad.fate.free.will’ below and see if the PDF downloads. Then you can just read it in your PDF viewer instead of the Mickey Mouse viewer built into the blog. It seems WordPress doesn.t like to play nice with embedded PDFs all the time, so if you.re still having hard time viewing, send me an email and I.ll attach the PDF in the happy reply.

Special bonus: for those of you who like to play chess, check out the the last page. There.s an endgame scenario that can be played out illustrating the harmony between fixed fate and free will using an actual chess endgame mapped onto Hector.s last stand with Achilles! Here.s a sneak preview of the endgame scenario, full instructions and blow-by-blow commentary in the article:

Endgame Iliad

Endgame Iliad

Publishing this article was an extremely positive experience, as the editor of Antichthon at the time, Harold Tarrant, happened to be a chess aficionado!

iliad.fate_.free_.will_

iliad.fate.free.will

Until next time, I.m Edwin Wong and I am, as always, Doing Melpomene’s Work. Happy reading and may the fates be with you!